JERUSALEM — A former downhill ski instructor and Los Angeles disc jockey turned haredi rabbi, Lawrence Kelemen feels the modern world has "missed the boat" when it comes to raising children.
That may sound like the typical message of someone who has rejected the secular realm after "getting religion." Yet Kelemen is an up-and-coming author in the mainstream publishing world, whose latest work preaching against spanking, television viewing and video games was selling like hotcakes online even before its official release in the United States last month. It appeared in Israel in September.
Kelemen's book, "To Kindle A Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers," soared up the Amazon.com sales ranking, reaching 48th out of 50,000 titles after his recent appearance on Dr. Laura Schlessinger's internationally syndicated radio program. Barnes & Noble ordered 2,850 advance copies, compared with the usual 800 advance copies of non-celebrity authors. This is despite the fact that the publisher is not one of the giant houses, but rather a combined effort of two small Jewish publishing houses: Targum Press and Leviathan Press, based in Jerusalem and Baltimore respectively.
The combination of the spiritual with cutting-edge research in "To Kindle a Soul" may be part of a growing trend among Jewish religious publishers to reach out to mainstream audiences.
Some even muse about the possibility of Orthodox Judaism becoming an "in" philosophy, a kind of ancient wisdom for modern minds.
"Our distributor — the National Book Network — was in shock," Kelemen says, "They never got a book order like this before. The book has struck a chord in the mainstream book world."
Kelemen is a Harvard- and UCLA-educated 40-year-old father of five and professor of education at the Neve Yerushalayim College of Jewish Studies for Women in the Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof. He is scheduled to tour the United States this month.
In his book, he reaches back 3,300 years into history to reveal an ancient system for parents to raise their children, drawing on the Bible, Talmud, midrashim, and the writings of rabbis and other sages. He backs up his approach with more than 400 studies from Harvard, Yale and elsewhere, in addition to his own 12 years of field work.
He outlines a plan of discipline for children that eschews all forms of violence, such as yelling or hitting. He designs a plan for cultivating love and attachment, developing the child's psychological resilience and satisfying the child's need for spirituality, all linked to Jewish sources and modern research.
Some of his ideas are controversial, such as a conviction that television and video games should be eliminated from children's lives. His basic premise, backed up by the sources and the sages, is that great parenting requires great human beings and only by parents learning how to develop their own potential is it possible to help children do the same.
Kelemen says the book grew out of a transformation that he himself underwent beginning about a decade ago, when he listened to lectures by talmudic sages trained in pre-Holocaust Europe.
These men were "the last remnants," Keleman says. "The youngest of them was 75 years old at the time. I fell in love with them; they had such huge hearts. They welcomed me with open arms and shared their wisdom with me, answering all my questions with great patience and love.
"I consistently heard from them the same themes about good parenting — ideas I had not heard at UCLA or Harvard or in Western psychology classes.
"I spent 12 years listening to them," Kelemen says.
In one particularly persuasive lecture, Kelemen relates: "I was sitting in a beit midrash in Jerusalem's Mattersdorf neighborhood when I heard a sage talk about the problem of hitting children. I was sick to my stomach. Up until then, I had spanked my children; now I realized what damage I could be doing."
Kelemen believes that child rearing boils down to parents "firing up their own soul and then passing that flame on to their children." He maintains that parents must improve their own characters and work on their own moral values. And that is a universal message that both Jews and non-Jews can say amen to.
"To Kindle a Soul" is one of a number of Jewish books that have broken through from the Jewish to the larger U.S. market in the last few years.
"The mainstream book companies and bookstores are buying Jewish books because they think they can sell them," says Rabbi David Aaron, dean and founder of Isralight, an international Jewish education organization, and the author of books that have also crossed over to wide audiences.
"There is a trend now on the part of non-Jews to read these books, reflecting a greater interest by non-Jews in learning about Judaism. It could be because of the current political situation in Israel, or it could signal the beginning of the messianic age."
Kelemen's first book, "Permission to Believe," sold more than 30,000 copies in the general book market, although it was never even marketed for such a wide audience.
Some observers regard the growing popularity of books written by religious Jews as part of a religious revival sweeping the United States.
Rabbi Moshe Dombey, publisher of Targum Press, says Kelemen's book is Targum's first publication that is "trying to hit non-Jews in a serious way."
He was surprised by the response from the Dr. Laura radio show devoted to the book. "There were more than 400 orders placed as a result of that show. I was amazed to see where they came from. They were from little towns and small cities in Montana, Idaho, Utah and South Dakota…This book appeals to traditional families, to conservative America."
Keleman feels that "To Kindle A Soul" has sparked such interest because "there is a widespread recognition that the modern world has missed the boat.
"There is also a back-to-basics movement in the world. People are attracted to this book because it iterates basic fundamental values and practices. Give your kids a hug. Spend time with them. Don't hit your children," he said.
"It is refreshing for parents to see things that make sense and are laid out in a framework. Because the book is drawing on a wealth of ancient wisdom in very few pages, it is a high concentration of common sense. Most popular parenting books have maybe four or five valuable points. One reader told me that 'To Kindle A Soul' has literally hundreds of valuable points and he had to reread it several times in order to master its common sense."